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Policy directions.

1. Do more and do better

Non-natives and Aboriginal peoples have lived together in Québec for more than 400 years. The Aboriginal peoples were first strategic allies in the conflicts between France and England and were, moreover, key trading partners for the colonial powers. We know that the first European settlers survived a harsh climate that they had never before experienced thanks to the know-how of the Aboriginal peoples.

Une relation à soigner

Once this know-how had been acquired, following the Franco-English wars, the Anglo-American conflicts and the decline of the fur market, the relationship between the original inhabitants and the colonial powers changed dramatically. The British Crown would, of course, officially recognize the Aboriginal peoples’ specific rights, in particular in the Royal Proclamation of 1763, but as numerous historians have shown, the relationship between the colonial governments and the Aboriginal peoples very quickly became harmful to the latter. Accordingly, no Aboriginal representative was invited to the Charlottetown and Québec City conferences that led in 1867 to the establishment of the Canadian federation, whose first government sought, in the words of its leader John A. Macdonald, “to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion.” It was at that time that the burden of pernicious colonialism exerted its full weight on Aboriginal societies. The Indian Act, adopted in 1876, permanently confirmed an asymmetrical relationship in which the Aboriginal peoples were infantilized and even scorned.1

The impacts of this relationship were widely documented, after an interval of nearly 20 years, by the exhaustive deliberations of two commissions: the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015). In many ways, the commissions emphasized the vigour and the resilience of the Aboriginal societies. However, they also clearly showed that the First Nations and Inuit have been subject for several generations to sustained attempts at assimilation. The terrible social consequences of the systemic racism and discrimination that they have suffered since the beginnings of the Canadian federation are now known. Beyond the thousands of broken lives, today we observe the disintegration of the social fabric, the debasement of identity, cultural erosion and impoverishment that have plunged several Aboriginal societies into the spiral of violence, destitution, consumption, dependence and despondency.

For all that, the Québec government has made several concrete gestures to harmonize its relationship with the Aboriginal peoples, including the conclusion of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (1975) and the Northeastern Quebec Agreement (1978).

At that time, the Québec government established a body in the Conseil exécutif, which has since become the Secrétariat aux affaires autochtones (SAA), responsible, in particular, for developing a sound, productive relationship with the First Nations and Inuit. In 1983, Cabinet ratified the “Fifteen Principles,” which clearly assert the intention to establish the relationship through a nation-to-nation dynamic. In 1985, the National Assembly of Québec adopted a motion to recognize Québec’s 10 Aboriginal nations and their rights. An identical motion in 1989 covered an eleventh nation, the Malecite Nation. In recent years, the Québec government has also undertaken comprehensive territorial negotiations with certain nations. In 1998 it published an important document entitled Partenariat, développement, action, in which it made public its policy directions in the realm of Aboriginal affairs and confirmed its desire to reach negotiated agreements nation to nation. In 2002, the Peace of the Braves agreement and the Sanarrutik Agreement were concluded with the Cree and the Inuit, respectively.

While these conciliatory gestures had significant political repercussions, the social difficulties experienced by a majority of Aboriginal communities in Québec have not abated. The Aboriginal peoples must still contend in their daily lives with the destructive effects of a still recent past. Faced with these difficulties, the Québec government recognizes that it has the responsibility to participate actively in the social and cultural development of the Aboriginal nations. This commitment is not new. Indeed, in the wake of the Forum socioéconomique des Premières Nations held in Mashteuiatsh in 2006, the Québec government had already implemented considerable means, sometimes recurrent, for the benefit of the Aboriginal communities. It was also at that time that Québec government departments and bodies elaborated, in their strategies and action plans, measures expressly adapted to the circumstances of the Inuit and the First Nations.

Today, the Québec government has decided to do more. Above all, it has decided to do better.

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Collective awareness

Striking events have recently made the headlines and, more than ever, demonstrated the need to step up efforts to ensure the betterment of Québec’s Aboriginal citizens.

The tabling of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada highlighted the contemporary impact of a boarding school system that, for a century, tore apart families and separated children from their parents. The subsequent erosion of the social bond in the communities, a deficit in parenting skills, a feeling of collective alienation, and spiritual, cultural and linguistic loss are the consequences both for communities and individuals that are rife even now. In the official apology to the Aboriginal nations in June 2008 on behalf of Canadians, Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged the deliberate nature of this planned attempt at assimilation. In June 2015, Québec Premier Philippe Couillard described as cultural genocide the system established to erase the identity, culture and even the language of the First Nations communities in our country.

The outcome of the 2015 federal election also contributed to bringing the Aboriginal question to the forefront of public concerns. A new political context is evolving across Canada that is focusing broader attention on Aboriginal questions, especially in respect of intergovernmental relations. The establishment of a federal, provincial, territorial and Aboriginal forum exemplifies the movement, to which the Québec government readily adheres.

Furthermore, the question of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, the unfortunate events in Val-d’Or and media reports have strikingly revealed the specific vulnerability of Aboriginal women in Québec and Canadian societies. In 2016, the federal government established a national commission of inquiry to examine the systemic causes of violence against Aboriginal women and girls. In addition to adopting an Order in Council to guarantee its participation in the Canada-wide commission, the Québec government established its own commission of inquiry, which is focusing on relations between the Aboriginal peoples and certain public services, in particular policing, health and social services. The commission’s findings are expected in 2018.

Today, Quebecers are becoming more acutely aware of the situation. The reality of the deplorable conditions in which their Aboriginal fellow citizens live, which are unworthy of a democratic, prosperous society such as Québec, is acutely apparent to Quebecers as never before. They know that the situation must change.

The Québec government acknowledges that acculturation and the social problems that the Aboriginal peoples are experiencing cannot go on. They are embodied in daily human dramas that are straining individuals, dislocating families and inhibiting the potential of entire communities. What is more, they are depriving Québec of resources that could otherwise contribute productively to the edification of Québec society of the future.

Everyone understands that the time has come to act.

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Renewed action

In recent years, the inclusion of distinctive measures in policies, strategies and sectoral action plans in social affairs has nonetheless engendered appreciable progress in the quality of the Québec government’s intervention in Aboriginal communities. Accordingly, numerous questions such as poverty, vagrancy, conjugal and family violence, youth, culture, health and sexual assault have been examined from the standpoint of the distinctive characteristics of a clientele whose identity and needs set it apart.

Current conditions in the communities nonetheless reveal that despite such efforts and the investment of substantial resources, the outcomes have not always achieved the desired impact. The Québec government has, therefore, resolved to consolidate and enhance its initiatives. To this end, it has decided to group together Aboriginal social development measures into a single approach, which incorporates all of the measures proposed by government departments and bodies in each of the focal areas concerned.

The Québec government has never before adopted this approach. Accordingly, instead of continuing to intervene in a fragmented manner through separate sectoral strategies or action plans, the Québec government will from now on contribute to the social and cultural development of the Inuit and the First Nations through concerted action. This approach now makes possible better synergy between the measures of different government departments and bodies. In point of fact, it has been difficult in recent years to establish complementarity or achieve a leverage effect between measures designed in a disparate manner. The integration of such measures seeks, for the first time, genuine cohesion in government action in the realm of Aboriginal social and cultural development.

This action plan is meant to be the outcome of this new approach.

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Comprehensive intervention

The government understands that its initiatives must hinge on a comprehensive perspective. Moreover, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada stresses the need for a holistic, integrated approach likely to enhance health, education and economic development (CRV, Sommaire, p. 191). The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples also stressed the notion that sanitary living conditions, education, cultural identity, spiritual support and economic activity are not independent needs but instead interconnected elements and that all of them interact with each other, thereby constituting integral parts of individual and collective betterment (Commission royale sur les peuples autochtones, Points saillants, p. 72)

The concept of social development that shapes this action plan is thus understood in its broadest sense. It is a question of establishing and bolstering the requisite conditions to enable individuals to fully achieve their potential and personal aspirations, participate productively in social life, and contribute to the common good. Social development does not seek solely to facilitate the self-fulfilment and quality of life of individuals, nor is it confined to the broader inclusion of marginalized individuals. It also seeks to strengthen communities, citizen involvement by community members, and the achievement of collective ambitions. Broadly understood, social development implements initiatives designed to promote social bonds and the establishment of a context of equal opportunity that gives all individuals the possibility of overcoming disadvantages, asserting their dignity, and creating a fruitful life. This approach is the first component of the action plan.

Cultural development is indissociable from social development. The Aboriginal languages and cultures have sustained lengthy erosion, the victims of denigration that has sometimes expressed itself through latent discrimination and sometimes through direct attempts at eradication. Culture is a key component of a people’s identity. It unites its members and offers them reference points. It structures, so to speak, the essence of the collective imagination. It defines values, formulates shared convictions, and reflects a shared representation of the universe. It assures the transmission of customs and traditions. Culture expresses a people’s aspirations and is the ideal medium through which a people projects itself both in the future and in the world. With the passing generations, repeated pressure has caused in the First Nations and Inuit disquiet and dejection, which, by and large, explain the social problems that have developed in their societies.

The promotion of culture and support for the Aboriginal languages are the second component of the action plan. In practical terms, government intervention seeks to help consolidate the Aboriginal languages, stimulate and promote the artistic field, promote heritage and support the production and dissemination of cultural works.

The question of the betterment of individuals and societies is not, of course, confined to the sole vectors of social and cultural development: it must also take into account economic development. All of these components are directly dependent on each other, which is why this action plan must not be considered in isolation. It must be regarded as the most recent of two key measures elaborated by the Québec government to enhance the living conditions of the Inuit and the First Nations.

Indeed, since 1999, the Québec government has already acted from an economic standpoint in the communities through the AIF. The program was renewed, in April 2017, for a period of five years, and makes available to the Aboriginal peoples a $135-million budget allowance for economic development. With the social and cultural development action plan, the Québec government has adopted an instrument that complements the AIF. Both tools have been designed to mutually reinforce each other and will be implemented coherently.

The holistic definition of well-being that Aboriginal culture advocates does not necessarily suit the manner in which modern governments usually organize their activities. Indeed, separate government departments and bodies that usually work independently of each other, each in its own field of expertise, carry out government intervention. With the publication of this action plan and the renewal of the AIF, the Québec government is initiating a paradigm shift in its manner of grasping the development of Aboriginal societies: from now on, it is advocating a comprehensive approach rooted in the economic, social and cultural circumstances of the communities2.

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2. Clear policy directions for effective action

The initiatives in this action plan must hinge on clear principles. The following policy directions dictate its general conception and implementation.

Extending a hand from nation to nation

The Canadian courts have gradually recognized the specific legal status of the Aboriginal peoples. In particular, in 1996 the Supreme Court confirmed in the Van der Peet judgement the specific legal status of the Aboriginal peoples by emphasizing that they lived in Canada in separate communities and possessed their own cultures, customs and traditions long before the arrival of the first Europeans. The Supreme Court noted that subsection 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 “is the reconciliation of the pre-existence of distinctive aboriginal societies with the assertion of Crown sovereignty.”

Accordingly, the Inuit and members of the First Nations are not only full-fledged Québec citizens but also constitute nations in the sociological and political sense, i.e. cohesive societies that are aware of their uniqueness, capable of enduring and maintaining elaborate political relationships. The concept of an Aboriginal nation refers to communities whose historic continuity, cultural conscience, ethnic identity and conception of the political sphere have survived the colonial past and to the establishment and rapid growth of a new nation in the territory.

The Québec government understands, therefore, that the Aboriginal peoples are not a simple minority group, whose difficulties the government must endeavour to resolve. They form political entities that occupy a singular place in Québec. This means, in particular, that the Aboriginal communities do not constitute for the Québec State a community like another one. The action plan specifically reflects this spirit. It represents, at the root of the nation-to-nation relationship that the Québec government wishes to continue to build with the Inuit and the First Nations, an attempt to achieve an Aboriginal partnership.

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A commitment for reconciliation

The relationship between the original inhabitants and public authorities has been marked historically by significant distortions. Mistakes have been made and harm has been done. Mutual misunderstandings have arisen, mistrust has emerged and conflicts have persisted. This relationship must clearly now receive special attention. Reconciliation is necessary, to which the Québec government intends to devote considerable effort.

In this respect, the government has taken note of the perspective of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which, in its report, explains that reconciliation consists in putting right past mistakes to achieve a relationship of reciprocal respect between peoples (CVR, Sommaire, p. 7). This is an ongoing process that must hinge on the truth and materialize in genuine societal changes. To become reconciled means working actively to achieve conciliation, i.e. a serene state of cohabitation, constructive exchanges and mutual understanding. As the Commission rightly noted, reconciliation must become a way of life (CVR, Volume 6, p. 23).

A contribution to healing

What is more, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada very rightly observes that without healing, genuine reconciliation cannot occur (CRV, Volume 6, p. 8). For two centuries, Québec’s Aboriginal peoples have displayed remarkable resilience. However, two centuries of injustice, uprooting and marginalization have in many ways undermined the societies and left after-effects from which they must now heal. The process must be viewed from two closely linked perspectives.

A number of individuals are experiencing serious personal problems, often reflected in antisocial, self-destructive behaviour. Such individuals, burdened by painful problems, must have an opportunity to regain their physical, psychological and spiritual health. They must have access to conditions that enable them to regain their self-esteem and the energy and dignity necessary to confidently assume their lives and develop harmoniously in society.

This notion of an approach geared to betterment also applies to communities, since the latter must recover from alienating events that have deeply shaken their foundations. We must enable the Aboriginal communities to regain their cohesion and vitality, repair the social fabric and restore a balanced state. Individual and collective well-being are two facets of the same process and are interdependent.

It goes without saying that the healing process must originate in the communities. It must be based on the know-how of the Aboriginal peoples, their traditions and their worldview. However, the Québec government acknowledges that it has an important role to play in this process and affirms through this action plan its determination to contribute tangibly to it.

Relevant, reassuring action from a cultural standpoint

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To have a genuine impact, it is imperative that the Québec government’s contribution to healing be linked to the specific identities and cultures of  the Inuit and the First Nations.

The conception of the measures in this action plan thus hinges on a comprehensive effort to understand and acknowledge the Aboriginal peoples’ specific situation. The objective is to maximize access to and the effectiveness of government service delivery through a sweeping, gradual, coherent adaptation of such delivery to the specific cultural and historic traits of the Inuit and the First Nations. An understanding of the specific nature of the Aboriginal peoples and the acquisition by interveners in the delivery of Québec public services of the appropriate skills is therefore essential to establish a reassuring environment of which trust and respect are the hallmarks.

In the long run, it is a question of implementing the relevant initiatives in keeping with Aboriginal sensitivities and cultures in order to eliminate the obstacles that the Aboriginal peoples all too often encounter when confronted with networks and services in which they feel lost and which often reflect values and customs that are foreign to them.

The action plan has been elaborated and will be implemented according to this logic of reassurance and cultural relevance.

Recognition of urban challenges

The implementation of relevant, reassuring measures from the standpoint of the Aboriginal cultures is especially important in urban environments where the Inuit and members of the First Nations, having left their familiar communities, often experience a cultural shock and a loss of points of reference. As the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples noted, culture is not cumbersome baggage that the Aboriginal peoples abandon at the city gates (Commission royale sur les peuples autochtones, Points saillants, p. 117).

This action plan must meet the challenge of broadening the presence in urban environments of the Aboriginal communities. The Aboriginal peoples are becoming increasingly mobile between the reserves and Québec municipalities. There are numerous reasons to settle temporarily or permanently in the city: to find work, study, receive medical treatment or social services and even, unfortunately, to flee a harmful climate.

This new reality is highlighting with increasing clarity new needs and an is also engendering challenges from the standpoint of the complementarity of services. While some Aboriginal peoples adapt well to their new environment and have good jobs, many others unfortunately experience disturbing destitution. In addition to the tragedy and misery that all too often stem from such destitution, the situation causes in some urban agglomerations health and public security problems that cannot be overlooked. Another factor that must not be overlooked is that Aboriginal peoples in the cities need to be able to create spaces where they can meet and collectively experience their cultural affiliation.

In short, this demographic movement to the municipalities demands that we mobilize to make Québec’s cities places where the Aboriginal peoples can develop and achieve individual and collective self-fulfilment in a spirit of respect for their difference. The action plan also reflects this key direction.

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Compliance with the constitutional framework

The Québec government must mobilize all the more so in respect of urban challenges since from the standpoint of health, social, education, employment, housing and other services its involvement is especially necessary when the beneficiary does not live in the territory of a community recognized pursuant to the Indian Act. This situation stems from a constitutional framework that must necessarily be taken into account. The Québec government thus intends to adopt the necessary tools to adapt its response to the growing number of Aboriginal peoples who are relying on the services in its networks.

However, we also know that the Canadian constitutional framework attributes to the federal government a specific role with respect to the Aboriginal peoples. Pursuant to subsection 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867, it exercises exclusive jurisdiction with regard to “Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians.” Hence, not only is it primarily responsible for community services but it is also responsible for contributing to the well-being of the Aboriginal peoples off reserve.

This situation therefore imposes objective limits on the Québec government’s intervention. It cannot act as a substitute for the federal government not only because of the limited scope of its own jurisdiction but also because it does not have sufficient resources to do so. For all that, the Québec government believes it is a priority to enhance the living conditions of the Aboriginal communities located in Québec’s territory. Bearing in mind the constitutional framework and the attendant federal-provincial situation, the Québec government intends to implement in a complementary manner to the Government of Canada’s initiatives the broadest possible efforts in order to participate concretely in the consolidation of the social safety net and conditions to ensure cultural self-fulfilment from which all of Québec’s Aboriginal citizens must benefit. What is more, it is in this perspective that it is already funding on the reserves the construction and operation of childcare centres or granting substantial funding to Aboriginal law enforcement services that report to the band councils. This action plan seeks to pursue such efforts.

Compliance with the Canadian constitutional context must, moreover, go hand in hand with a renewed dialogue between the Québec and federal governments. The two levels of government must more effectively combine their efforts and, through enhanced consultation, establish better synergy in their initiatives. This spirit must, in particular, guide the necessary implementation of Jordan’s Principle3.

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Essential consideration for Aboriginal women

The mediatization of different types of violence sustained by Aboriginal women and girls has contributed greatly to recent awareness in Québec of the social unrest that is undermining Aboriginal societies. In particular, it has revealed major discrimination issues centred on sex and vulnerability specific to Aboriginal women, who experience a higher violence rate and are the victims of more serious forms of violence than non-Aboriginal women. In particular, they are overrepresented among the victims of homicides, including spousal and domestic homicides. It should be noted, in this respect, that in 2015 the Committee on Citizen Relations of the National Assembly assumed an initiative mandate on the living conditions of Aboriginal women in conjunction with sexual assault and spousal and family violence.

The initiatives implemented under this action plan will be adopted for the benefit of Québec’s Aboriginal population overall, both women and men. The challenges that First Nations and Inuit women and girls are facing nonetheless require a perspective of the social and cultural development of the populations that focuses essentially on living conditions and the differentiated needs of women and men.

This perspective hinges on a twofold objective, i.e. to combat different vulnerability factors that affect women and girls, and to promote the full mastery of their ability to act to enable them to contribute fully to the development of communities and the environments in which they are essential links. Women do not only constitute in Aboriginal societies a vulnerable group in respect of which we must seek to enhance living conditions. They are also genuine social anchors in the family and the community whose role must be promoted. They possess considerable strength for change on which we must capitalize.

In the perspective of this twofold objective, government intervention in the realm of social development for Aboriginal women and girls will be carried out in two ways. First, the challenges facing First Nations and Inuit women will be considered in a horizontal manner in the implementation of the key developmental measures under the action plan. Second, measures will be elaborated to satisfy the targeted needs specific to women, in particular with respect to sexual abuse, spousal and family violence and the complementarity between women and men as regards economic empowerment and social and political leadership.

By placing the condition of Aboriginal women at the forefront of its initiatives, the Québec government expects a positive overall impact not only on the health of families but also on the betterment of the entire community. As the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples noted, we must seek the reintegration of women into the decision-making process of families, communities and nations (Commission royale sur les peuples autochtones, Points saillants, p. 66).

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Special attention for Aboriginal young people

At the same time, young people, whose self-fulfilment is a key to the development of Aboriginal societies, warrant special attention.

For two generations, the population of the Aboriginal nations has grown at a much faster pace than Québec’s total population. Aboriginal young people are increasingly becoming a majority in their communities. Nearly 50% of Québec’s Aboriginal peoples are under 30 years of age and roughly 60% are under 35 years of age, compared with 34% and 40%, respectively, in the total population. These young people are facing daunting challenges. They know that entire segments of the society to which they belong must be rebuilt and that they are destined to become the key builders. Aboriginal young people have tremendous potential that must continue to be put to good use and on which we must more broadly rely.

This action plan is meant to contribute concretely to the impetus of Aboriginal youth. The Québec government hopes to support the Aboriginal communities to enable them to guide young people in their life paths and offer services that will help them to become active citizens capable of effectively playing the central role that is necessarily theirs in the development and vitality of their communities and Québec society as a whole.

Gradual action

This action plan presents measures that will constitute the main part of the Québec government’s commitment in the realm of Aboriginal social and cultural development over the next five years (2017-2022). However, during this period, the array of measures will be enhanced.

Relevant initiatives will continue to be conceived in collaboration with the Aboriginal communities and will be incorporated into the action plan for its duration. We know, for example, that certain Québec government action plans, strategies or sectoral policies containing measures specifically intended for the Aboriginal peoples will expire during the five-year span of this action plan. Such measures will be integrated into the action plan at the time of their renewal and then become an integral part of it.

Another example: measures devoted to the Aboriginal peoples are still being elaborated in the government departments and bodies concerned and cannot be incorporated immediately into this action plan. They will be integrated at later stages.

Lastly, we know that the Commission on relations between Indigenous Peoples and certain public services in Québec is expected to publish its report in 2018. The report will undoubtedly include recommendations that could lead to the conception of new measures. If need be, such measures will also be integrated into this action plan. The conclusions of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls will, of course, be considered in the same way.

In short, this action plan is not static but is open-ended and will be subject to updates. Above all, it remains open to innovation.

1. The Indian Act included, for example, compulsory “emancipation” measures. Accordingly, Aboriginal individuals who obtained a university degree, entered a professional corporation  as a physician, a lawyer or a notary or who became a Christian minister had to renounce their Indian status. In actual fact, the privileges and rights associated with citizenship were only granted to the Aboriginal peoples on the express condition that they renounce their status.

2. This action plan thus falls within the scope of a sustainable development perspective, as defined by the policy directions in The 2015-2020 Government Sustainable Development Strategy, in particular to promote social inclusion and reduce social and economic inequality, and to enhance through prevention the health of the population.

3. Jordan’s Principle, stemming from a decision handed down in January 2016 by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, stipulates that no Aboriginal child should be subject to a refusal, disturbances or delay in services because of a jurisdictional conflict between the federal government and the government of his province or territory of residence.

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Context. Policy direction. Strategic priorities. The Measures. Conclusion.

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Last update: November 1, 2017
Online as of : June 28, 2017